7th March, 2022
Discuss the representation of women in Edith Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’.
Ethan Frome’s story begins with a first-person narrative and then flashes back to a third-person narration of the protagonist’s years before his accident. Our first encounter with the female character throughout the novella is when the first-person narrator hears the voice of a woman from inside the Frome’s impoverish farmhouse. Ethan Frome has been married to his wife, Zeena Pierce, for over 25 years. However, Zeena has claimed to have been unwell for much of their marriage. The other central female character of the text is Zeena’s young and beautiful cousin Mattie Silver, who comes into the picture and lives with both Zeena and Ethan, placing more strain on their already unhappy marriage. Thus, it could be argued that both women are seen in the context of how our male protagonist feels about them, which is, arguably, faintly misogynistic. There is a certain irony to that, since the author of the novella, Edith Wharton, is female.
In relation to feminism, there are certain female characters that are empowered, namely Zeena and Mattie, who both seem to exercise a different variety of control over Ethan. Edith Wharton portrays the character of Ethan Frome as an insecure male easily dominated and exploited by his wife and overly sensitive to Mattie’s admiration. Thus, it could be argued that Zeena is depicted as a strong female and yet it seems more likely that her apparent strength really stems from insecurity regarding her husband’s feelings for her, “QUOTE”.
Zeena does not comply with the responsibilities of a woman during the 20th century, but instead, she causes many problems for Ethan by complaining about her health and using funds he does not have on medicines, “QUOTE”. According to the traditions and customs of the time, a lady was not allowed to give her husband any financial problems, like Zeena did to Ethan. Zeena believes that she does not have to perform certain duties, including household chores, and maintains that it is Ethan’s responsibility to pay her back for all the services she offered initially, including caring for his mother. Despite claiming to be physically disabled, Zeena has mental dominance over her husband, and she influences his thoughts to the point where he has a memory of her “superseded” face against his will. The impact Zeena has on Ethan is, arguably, a sinister kind of feminism insofar as she is able to largely control her husband in an epoch when wives were meant to be subservient.
Despite Ethan being a man, he is depicted as inferior to women in his life since his wife is able to control him and make him do all the things that she wants. “Zeena always came back laden with expensive remedies, and her last visit to Springfield had been commemorated by her paying twenty dollars for an electric battery of which she had never been able to learn the use” (Whaton 40). Although there is inadequate evidence to support Zeena’s sickness existence, she makes Ethan pay for her expensive treatments besides being aggressive and passive. Zeena also makes nearly all the decisions in the relationship and often complains as Ethan listens with any objection. According to a patriarchal society’s standards, a man should not comply with all the demands of a woman but certain instances in the novel show how he is submissive and acts according to Zeena, which is against those standards.
On the other hand, Mattie Silver, who is young, jovial, and outgoing, has all the authority to take control of everything she needs. She also exemplifies many of the qualities admired in women in the society of the time, being both beautiful and superficially accomplished, “QUOTE”. In terms of her feelings for Ethan she represents submissive and affectionate womanhood; she is always ready to obey his commands, “QUOTE”. The novel also illustrates how the traditional division of labor in marriage led to women remaining at home most of the time, busy with household chores while men were out working. In reference to the novel, the notion of the isolation women suffer is factually enraging; the mother of Ethan Frome even becomes mad due to loneliness. “His mother had been a talker in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain “(Whaton 44). Need correction
Wharton demonstrates how traditional marriage sets up a damaging power struggle between a man and wife because Zeena uses her passive-aggressive “sickliness” to control Ethan and his feelings of inferiority and repulsion for Zeena, which is caused by his lack of control. Edith describes Ethan’s marriage as oppressive, melancholy, and loveless that is bound to break. The Frome’s marriage is often mirrored by the isolating and devastated effects of the weather, which ironically makes them more dependent company. Wharton relates to Ethan’s marriage as a thick snowfall from the previous night, which indicates that the problem within their marriage would increase, “WEATHER QUOTE”. When Zeena travels to Springfield, it shows that she gets to run away from the trouble that she faces.
In conclusion, it is evident that women have been represented in the novel mainly through marriage, and gender roles. In the past, people believed that women were only meant to stay at home and perform certain duties, including house chores, while men went out to work. The issue of gender roles has always resulted in the discrimination of women because men believe and feel that women are inferior and should not control them. However, elements of the novel demonstrate that women too can have control over men, although they seem to impact the life of Ethan negatively. Contrary to traditional customs, Ethan is controlled by Zeena, including the decisions she makes as he remains silent.
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